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The Lowest-to-Highest (L2H) is a cross-country route that begins at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest point in North America, and traverses two mountain ranges before climbing to the highest point in the lower 48 states, Mt. Whitney. I first heard about it while thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail back in 2014. It has gained popularity in recent years, though when I did it in 2016, I only met a handful of other hikers. It’s a stunning, strenuous, and logistically challenging route reserved only for the most experienced and dedicated backpackers. It’s not to be taken on without serious consideration and planning. When I hiked it, I also included a 60 mile extension on the High Sierra Trail (HST) from Mt. Whitney to the General Sherman Tree in Kings Canyon Sequoia National Park. Highly recommended for those who just can’t get enough!


L2H + HST :: Logistics

01 October 2016

Permits secured. Caches staged. Transit organized.

I got out of the field on Wednesday evening and was on the road by Thursday morning. I wanted to tie off all of the loose ends before I ticked off another wishlist trail, the Skyline-to-the-Sea near Santa Cruz, CA. First stop: Death Valley. I walked into the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to get a permit and check in with rangers about water sources in Hanaupah and Tuber canyons.

Unfortunately, the ranger I spoke with didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. He assured me that he had no information about either of those water sources, that no one had been available to check on them for the last eight or nine months, and finally that he “wouldn’t be surprised if it was running and wouldn’t be surprised if it was dry.” Cool. Super-helpful. At that point, I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Next, I asked about the quality of the West Side Road. I figured I’d just drop a gallon of water at the start of the Hanaupah Canyon Road split, just to be safe. I told him I had a Camry, and he discouraged me from driving the road. At this point, I was getting skeptical. He was being vague and his body language was shady. The conversation didn’t really feel productive. It was more like him trying to passively discourage me from doing what he knew I was about to do, even though I hadn’t explicitly told him my intentions. I just said “thanks,” and walked out.

No sense coming all that way and not having a look for myself, so I drove out to the West Side Road. Looked fine from the pavement, so I drove on down. The split off for Hanaupah Canyon was only like 10-ish miles away. I took it slow. I’ve taken that car many places I might ought not have, but I’m always uber cautious. The last thing I ever wanna do is get stuck- and I haven’t yet. West Side Road was no exception. In fact, it was well-graded and totally legit the whole way. I dunno what that guy was talking about. I dropped a gallon of water and drove back to the visitor center to get a permit. I suspected the spring would be running, but I didn’t wanna take any chances.

When I returned, my friend was still there. I filled out the permit paperwork, and he looked it over. I’m sure he wasn’t surprised to see my itinerary. He didn’t say anything to me directly, though I saw him note in the comments section “User is well-prepared.” I was wearing athletic shorts and flip flops, so I thought that was generous of him.

I understand that it’s an important part of a ranger’s role to discourage their average users from taking on really challenging itineraries, as the average national park goer has a poor track record of treating our protected lands like amusement parks. Folks say “Wow, walking from Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney looks like fun. I love hiking!” Sometimes people don’t realize that a trip like this isn’t an extension of the Whitney Portal Trail; there are no check steps or steady grades. This is hardcore. There are no rest areas or water fountains in the Death Valley backcountry. When you walk out onto the playa and across Badwater Basin, you’re on your own. Carrying a SPOT device is no substitute for thorough planning and good judgment.

Hanaupah Canyon was only the beginning of my water caching quest. My general plan was to drop a couple gallons of water at the locations where I intended to camp. That way, I could use water for cooking and “camel up” at the end and start of each day to ultimately minimize how much water I would need to carry. I also dropped food at three of the four caches.

I dropped my second cache at the route’s intersection with Trona-Wildrose Road. The road itself was closed due to a washout. I had my road bike with me, so I skirted the cones and road the five miles up to the drop point with three gallons of water and a food drop en tow. Not sure if that was actually allowed…our secret.

The drop at the start of Saline Valley Road was easy peasy. And driving the road up to Cerro Gordo was easier than I’d anticipated. My plan was to get as close as I could in my Camry, which ended up being all the way. Guess the road had been recently graded. Super-grateful that I didn’t have to hike the drop in (which I was prepared to do).

Finally, I left a hiker box at the Whitney Portal Hostel in Lone Pine this morning before heading to the coast. Didn’t have to mail it or anything. Just dropped it off and they were happy to hold it for me. I packed both food and some gear I thought I might need for Whitney and the High Sierra Trail: some extra warm layers, a sleeping bag liner, even microspikes.

I stopped in at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center on my way out of town to pick up my permit, but they wouldn’t let me grab it a week early. Turns out you can’t pick up the permit until two days prior to the permit date. I told them what I was doing and that I probably wouldn’t have cell service and might not be able to get there before they close on Oct 9. She said that she was sorry and that there was nothing she could do for me today. The only option was to call them – again not more than two days early – to ask them to leave the permit in the overnight box. Hope I have cell service!

I’m so freakin’ psyched thinking about this trip – it’s getting real! But first, a quick challenge hike I’ve been meaning to do out on the coast: The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. Let’s just call it a warm up.


L2H + HST :: Transit

05 October 2016

After completing the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, I headed over to the Giant Forest Museum in SEKI where I left my car. After completing the L2H, my intention is to continue down the back side of Mt. Whitney on the High Sierra Trail and finish my trip at the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park. It’s a trail that’s been on my wishlist, and what better time to do it since I’ll already be there?

I used a combination of hitching and public transportation to get back to Badwater Basin to start my trek. It took about 10 minutes to catch a ride from the Giant Forest Museum. Paul and Alisha picked me up. I was bracing myself for a long wait, since there weren’t very many folks heading down toward Three Rivers from the park. Paul owns a tour company based in Three Rivers and Alisha is one of his guides. They’d just finished a tour in the park and were feeling charitable, I suppose. My lucky day!

Loved talking to them on the beautiful ride down to Three Rivers. They told me about public transit that would take me into Visalia, which is where I was going to catch a bus. I don’t mind spending a few dollars if I don’t have to rely on someone else’s generosity and my own good luck, especially since I’m usually filling every minute with adventure, which doesn’t leave too much wiggle room for waiting on hitches.

I hung out at the bus stop where Paul dropped me for three hours waiting on the last bus of the night, and when the bus finally came, I waved my arms wildly to flag it down…and it just kept going. I couldn’t believe it. I was so angry. I wasn’t scheduled to depart Visalia until the following day at 1030a, but I loathe waiting until the last minute. Catching the morning bus was going to mean cutting it close in Visalia. After sulking for a few minutes, I picked up my pack and started walking toward the main hub. (I’d been waiting at an auxiliary stop.)

As I was walking the road in the dark, assuming it was too late in the evening to hitchhike, a random guy stopped and hollered at me from across the road. He offered me a ride, and I told him I was actually heading all the way to Visalia and that the bus had blown by me. He thought for a second, then offered me a ride all the way if I threw him a couple bucks. Deal! I hopped in and off we went.

Travis is an odd dude, but very nice. A giver with a big heart. When he asked quite candidly if I had a pipe within the first few minutes of the ride, I got suspicious. His eyes were blood shot, and his speech was subtlety slurred. Definitely drunk, likely high. I was tempted to just get out, but he was doing such a good job. He wasn’t driving erratically or carelessly. He wasn’t speeding. And he ultimately delivered me safe and sound, so no complaints here.

It was only about 9p, so I walked around looking for a place to stealth camp in the middle of Visalia. Not so easy, especially knowing that any park or public space was likely to have sprinkler timers set to irrigate in the middle of the night. You know, when no one is there to get wet. I chose a spot in the corner of one of the parks. Pushing my luck, I know. And wouldn’t ya know, one of the sprinklers came to life around midnight. Fortunately, I was able to scoop up my gear and get out of the way before anything got wet. I considered relocating in the park, but as sprinklers continued to go off throughout the lawn and garden beds, I knew it was hopeless. Instead, I walked over to an adjacent parking lot and set up on a sidewalk behind an office building. (I’m such a dirtbag sometimes.) Pretty poor sleep that night, as you might imagine.

Got up around 7a yesterday morning, just in time to wave to someone pulling into the parking lot, presumably to go to work. She must’ve been so confused.

The bus to kick off my double transfer trip to Vegas was running late, which made me a little nervous given my experience the night before. It finally pulled up around 1040a. Nice, easy ride to the train station where my train was running a little late as well. With only 6 minutes between de-boarding the train and catching my last bus to Vegas, I was feeling anxious yet again. Fortunately, we made up some time on the train. When I finally boarded the bus in Bakersfield, I smiled to myself, totally content. Vegas-bound. No more transfers.

From there, I was all set. I arrived in Vegas at 7p without incident. (Though to be fair, I originally got off at the wrong stop in Vegas and realized my mistake just in time to hop back on. Haha, classic move.) My last bus, which would take me to Pahrump, didn’t depart until this morning, so I moseyed around Vegas for a couple hours. Thought about getting a hotel room, but I’m cheap, so I just crashed at the Greyhound station. Talk about sketchy. It was another mostly sleepless night.

I had hoped to be well-rested and well-hydrated for the start of this trip, but that hope was not becoming a reality. Looking back, a room would’ve been a good investment. Ah well, live and learn.

The ride out to Pahrump was easy enough. Had hoped to catch Bearclaw for lunch, but some work stuff came up for her, so we’ll try it again when I finish next week. I walked four miles out of town and posted up at Bell Vista Ave, thinking it would be easier to hitch from there. I wasn’t even out there a half hour when a couple with an 18-month old baby Ethan stopped and gave me a ride for the first leg. From there, I waited about 5 minutes and watched about as many cars pass before I caught my second and final hitch. This time from a couple who was road tripping around California and the Pacific Northwest. He was a backpacker himself and had had trouble hitching before, so he took pity on me. They gave me a ride all the way out to Badwater even though it was out of their way. Love the backpacking community!

I just did a final check on my gear, and I’m heading out shortly. Here we go.

Badwater Basin to Confluence Hanaupah Canyon

Badwater Basin to Confluence Hanaupah Canyon

05 October 2016

Walking away from the parking area was pretty lackluster, no fan fair, just me quietly setting out across the playa. The time was 4:22PM. I was smiling to myself, imagining what all those people must’ve been thinking as they watched me walk off with my backpack and trekking poles. Lots of folks were staring, but no one seemed to want to ask: Where are you going? What are you doing? Are you crazy?

I took a bearing and off I went. “Here I go, finally,” I thought to myself as I settled into my hiking rhythm. A shin splint in my right leg set in pretty quickly. I hadn’t even made it across the playa, or even to the true lowest point, and it was already coming on strong. I’d originally gotten it a couple days ago during my challenge hike on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. Guess three days wasn’t enough rest for it to heal. Can’t say I was surprised, but I also wasn’t willing to turn around. I figured I could at least make it to Whitney and finish the L2H. At that point, I’d have to decide whether to end my trip there without doing the High Sierra Trail. With that plan in mind, I chose to keep going and re-evaluate at Panamint Springs.

Rather than take the standard route, or the easier alternate, I set a bearing for the true lowest point in North America. It meant a little extra distance, but it was important to me to honor the namesake of the route. There was a little cairn to mark it, which I thought was pretty cool.

From there, I just b-lined it straight across the playa for Hanaupah Canyon and my first water cache. The playa north of the official route was a perpetually changing landscape of saturated, thinly veiled mud and razor-sharp, Mars-like terrain that looked like breaking waves frozen in time. There were long sections where I broke through the crust with each step and slipped and slid through the mud. Then there were other long sections where I had to pick my way carefully through the latter to avoid tripping and getting cut up or injured. Difficult walking either way, and beautiful.

The sun set beautifully as I moved westward into it. And the moon wasn’t up for very long before it also set. Eventually I lost my landmark in the black sky, so I resorted to GPS navigation rather than cumbersomely following a compass bearing. Cheating, sure, but it was just easier. Totally stoked on this Suunto Traverse watch. It’s certainly imperfect, but the coordinates and GPS navigation are spot on, which makes it a great little insurance policy for orienteering.

I reached my water cache and took a break. First leg done. It was about 830p when I left with hopes of making it nine more miles along a 4WD road. Normally, that’s a pretty easy order for me. Not tonight. Since the ranger wasn’t able to give me any information about Hanaupah Spring and Tuber Canyon, I was carrying nine liters of water to get me all the way to Trona-Wildrose Road. Eleven-thirty rolled around and I’d only covered six miles, so I called it a night. It’s midnight and I’m curled up in my sleeping bag. I’ll get up in three and a half hours, which should get me hiking by 4a tomorrow. Hoping to make up some time and get back on track.

God, I love this stuff. Nowhere else I’d rather be.

Miles Hiked: 14

Confluence Hanaupah Canyon to Trona-Wildrose Road

Confluence Hanaupah Canyon to Trona-Wildrose Road

06 October 2016

I probably would’ve slept until 9a or later were it not for the sleeping backpackers I passed late last night who then passed me sleeping this morning. They were being pretty quiet, so I’m surprised I woke. And glad. I hastily packed up, grabbed some bars for breakfast and was walking by 7a. Turns out I hadn’t set an alarm last night. I guess I was just so tired. I mean, I was out last night almost before my head hit my “pillow.”

Passing those hikers last night – and seeing them again this morning – was both exciting and a bummer. I had foolishly hoped to be the only person out here this year. Silly, I know. Already I’ve seen two separate parties of two, which makes five of us who likely all left yesterday. I’m betting more people will do it this year alone than have done it every year combined up to this point. The secret’s out. Seems like it’s mostly PCT vets too, which is where I first heard about the route.

Within the first hour this morning, I’d come across Hanaupah Creek, which was flowing full-on. I was angry and resentful at first, assuming the ranger had known and just not been forthcoming with me. Then I decided that it didn’t really matter whether he knew. I was there, and I had all that I needed to continue. I took a break and enjoyed some of the cold, refreshing water before pressing on and up out of the canyon. I could see both parties of hikers making their way up the slope ahead of me.

I caught Didgeridoo and his brother Johnny Cash on the ridge below Telescope Peak. We got to talking, and it turns out that they both thru-hiked the PCT in 2014 – the same year I did. Small world! Didgeridoo attempted the L2H last year but quit after his companion got really sick. This year he’s battling a knee injury. He’s still set on making it; I hope they do.

They stopped for a break, and I continued on. I’ve been pacing myself by maintaining a slower hiking speed rather than by taking more breaks. I’m ready to rock besides this shin splint, but I can only move as fast as the weakest link will let me. Tried to do a little too much by squeezing in that challenge hike out in Santa Cruz last weekend. Pretty classic move for me. Gotta adventure hard whenever I get the chance! No regrets. And let’s be honest, if it wasn’t a shin splint, there would’ve been some other limiting factor. A nagging knee injury, for example. Or blisters. Or just plain old aches and pains. There’s always something.

The climb to Telescope Ridge was mostly tame, but the last big push was a total strugglefest. Then add to that the three extra miles I tacked on this morning by finishing early last night, my late start this morning, and the seven liters I’d been hauling. Haha, tough climb. I had seriously considered skipping the Telescope Peak summit, but I changed my mind when I reached the ridge. The peak was just so close and on an established trail. I couldn’t justify skipping it, so I ditched my pack and cruised the mile and a half to the top. It was cool, but it didn’t really blow my hair back. The kicker for me was the prominence. I’d just climbed from -282 feet to 11,043 feet. Pretty dang neat.

By that point, my shin splint was flaring up significantly. I happily pressed on. Then, inexplicably, it all but went away during the descent into Tuber Canyon. I’ve barely given it a thought since, except to wonder whether it will be back in force tomorrow. I’m both surprised and grateful for the relief. No complaints here.

Another beautiful sunset as I made my way down Tuber Canyon toward the Panamint Valley and my next water cache. I didn’t even bother looking for water. If it was there, it wasn’t immediately obvious, and I had all I needed either way, so I just kept my headphones in and kept on cruising.

Halfway down Tuber it got so thick and choked out in the drainage that I had to climb up the south wall of the canyon and painfully charge through thick vegetation and brambles. Fortunately the section was pretty short, and I was back in the wash before too long. There were two or three other similar short sections before I reached my cache. Inconvenient, but fun in their own way.

I reached my cache tonight at 1015p, which is better than I expected. Let’s try this again. I’m shooting to be up by 330a and hiking by 4a tomorrow morning. Planning to take a long siesta at Panamint Springs Resort tomorrow afternoon- lunch, a shower, and a nap. Totally stoked!

The sky is incredible tonight. I couldn’t be happier or more satisfied right now. What a cool adventure.

Miles Hiked: 25

Trona-Wildrose Road to Saline Valley Road

Trona-Wildrose Road to Saline Valley Road

07 October 2016

Snooze is my best friend, so I just indulged myself by hitting it for an hour this morning. Up at 430a, hiking by 5a. Close enough.

Most of my hike across Panamint Valley was quite pleasant. When the sun rose, it got hot quickly. Up to this point, my itinerary had worked out pretty well. I started late in the day on Wednesday. The sun was low in the sky, which meant that Badwater Basin was comparatively cool. I hit Telescope Ridge in the afternoon yesterday, and it was plenty warm up there despite the wind. As I lost elevation in Tuber Canyon last night, the sun was setting, so it cooled off as I descended into the valley. All part of the plan.

As I’d feared, my shin splint was back in full force today, which made for some pretty brutal hiking this morning. I’d hoped these would be quick miles, but I kept a conservative pace to nurse my injury. I’d been using Aleve to manage the pain, but it wasn’t very effective, so I switched to Ibuprofin in Panamint Springs. They’re both NSAIDs, but Ibuprofin seems to be working better for me in this case.

The last couple hours into Panamint Springs Resort were hot, but I still managed to avoid the true heat of the day. Upon arriving, I plopped down in one of the lawn chairs in front of the convenience store. It was so nice to sit in a chair! (Little victories, you know.) First things first. After I collected myself, I went into the convenience store for some chocolate milk. No dice, so I settled for a little Starbucks Mocha Frap bottle thingy. It totally hit the spot. Next, burger and a beer for lunch. The bar tender called me “one of the crazies” and assured me that it wasn’t uncommon for “us” to stop in for lunch and a shower en route to Whitney. Quirky dude. I enjoyed him.

(Note that Panamint Springs uses satellite internet, so their plan is limited. Please be respectful as a hiker. Don’t use up their plan updating your social media and blogs. Do what you need to do, and try to remember that there will be many more of us as this route becomes more popular. We represent all of the hikers who will come behind us, and we don’t want to abuse this wonderful oasis. For example, I sent an email to my mom to let her know that I was ok, then I ate my lunch and headed over to the shower.) 

The shower system is amazing. You pay three dollars for a shower pass, then you can shower as many times as you want for as long as you want all day long. Bliss. After my shower, I headed back to the convenience store for a milkshake, then went over to the campground to charge up my electronics  – so many freakin’ electronics – and take a nap. Finding outlets and a shady spot was a total snap. I’d only been in “town” two and a half hours, and I was already feeling pretty refreshed. Still, I wasn’t in a rush to bolt out of there while it was still so hot out. Ended up staying until 5p, a total of five hours for my little siesta.

There was a short road walk along Hwy 190 to start out of Panamint Springs, then a dirt road/trail up to Darwin Falls, which I almost skipped. But I was feeling great. And I figured for an extra mile and negligible elevation gain, it would be silly not to check it out. So glad I did. It’s a beautiful little spot.

I considered continuing along the alternate route, but then decided I’d rather keep it simple with the sun setting and night closing in, so I backtracked to the main route and climbed a gentle slope to gain the ridge overlooking Darwin Canyon. I still had 12 miles to go, which ended up amounting to 6 hours of hiking. Not too shabby for cross country route finding in the dark, though.

When I finally arrived at Saline Valley Road and Hwy 190, I found my food cache totally demolished. I knew when I cached it that this might happen, so I tried to mitigate the likelihood by completely covering the box with rocks. (I know; shoulda buried it. Some lessons we gotta learn the hard way.) It worked at Trona-Wildrose, but not here. The only things the little critter hadn’t gotten were two tuna packets. Fortunately I’d had a big lunch at Panamint, so I’m content to just have a clif bar and go to sleep.

Convenient as that is, the question remains: What about tomorrow? Can I make it to Cerro Gordo on a couple bars and two packets of tuna? Well, yeah. No problem. But what if my cache there is also demolished? Can I make it to Lone Pine? Yeah, I bet I can. The only other option is to try and hitch from here to Panamint (or Lone Pine) to resupply and get back. Doesn’t feel like it’s worth all that trouble; I’m not that concerned.

Another imperfect day. I wouldn’t have it any other way! The troubleshooting, the never knowing how things are going to go- those are some of my favorite parts of backpacking.

Miles Hiked: 29

Saline Valley Road to Highway 136

Saline Valley Road to Highway 136

08 October 2016

I slept better last night, though it was still short. Alarm at 4a, hiking by 5a. Given that I set out both sleep-deprived and dehydrated, I’m actually doing really well. Seems sheer will power can overcome a lot.

I took some extra time last night to hang and bombproof everything before I rolled out my sleeping bag. There was a critter, some sort of small fox or weasel, who was really curious last night. He tracked me for the last quarter mile and lingered around my site last night. He seemed harmless. I wonder whether he was the one who raided my resupply. Whatever did that must’ve been really hungry. Let’s just consider it a user fee. I mean, I am trespassing. I left my extra water and food trash at Saline Valley Road. I’ll swing by and grab it on my way back East after my trip. One advantage to driving rather than flying out from Durango.

The entire hike today was on roads, mostly 4WD. I cruised to Cerro Gordo via the standard route. Arrived after just 11 hours. Pretty easy walking. Even the climb wasn’t very steep compared to Telescope. I elected to skip the Cerro Gordo summit because my shin splint has been coming and going. And besides, I haven’t had cell service, so I need to keep cruising in order to get to the permit station in Lone Pine before they close tomorrow at 4p since I don’t have service to call and have them leave it in the overnight box. Shouldn’t be an issue; I’m making great time.

I arrived at my cache to find my food box intact. Ants had burrowed into a couple of my water jugs, though. (I didn’t even know that was a thing.) Good thing I cached more than I needed. My original plan had been to spend the night near Cerro Gordo and walk into town tomorrow. But I’d arrived at 4p, and I felt great. I ate lunch and took a nap for an hour before pressing on.

Got off route right away when I dropped down the Cerro Gordo Road instead of the Swansea – Cerro Gordo Road. Cruised a little over a mile down a steep grade before I noticed my mistake. Ah well, I wasn’t about to backtrack. Besides this was the road I’d taken to drop my cache anyways, so I knew where I was. After some quick math, turns out joining the race route from Cerro Gordo Road would be almost exactly the same distance I would walk if I took the standard route and didn’t hitch to get my permit. This way I’d pass the permit station en route anyways. So, samesies.

Honestly, I’d do it this way again despite the extra pavement pounding. I’d considered this route earlier in the trip. I just figured it was simpler to pick up my permit en route. Besides I don’t really mind road walks. I wouldn’t wanna do them all the time, but walking a road in the late evening and early morning can be really pleasant. It was 8p when I reached Hwy 136, so there were very few people driving. There were a couple other advantages too. I finally got 3G, so I was able to play on the internet as I walked the road. I also got to throw out my trash in Keeler rather than carrying it all the way to Lone Pine.

Seeing the town lights along Hwy 395 as I descended Cerro Gordo and walked along the road was really beautiful against the dark silhouette of the High Sierra. I ended up pushing until nearly midnight tonight, listening to music and enjoying the signs of civilization. Figured I’d rather crush tonight, then sleep in and mosey down to the visitor center tomorrow morning. Long day, though. Feeling pretty shredded after 19 hours. I dropped my gear and cowboy camped right out in the open next to the highway. No shame in my game. Just 4.5 miles to go along Hwy 136 to reach the Visitor Center where I'll pick up my permit, and then another mile into Lone Pine along Hwy 395.

Miles Hiked: 41

Highway 136 to Whitney Portal Campground

Highway 136 to Whitney Portal Campground

09 October 2016

My satisfaction and stoke grew as I neared the visitor center this morning. Given the short 4.5 mile walk, I’d slept in today, so I arrived a little before 9a. I thought I was all set and ready to rock. I’d secured my permit at the end of July and organized the timing of the entire trip around climbing Whitney on Oct 10.

When I got to the counter to grab my permit, the ranger was asking about my car and my exit point. I told her my car is at SEKI and I’d be hiking out at Crescent Meadow. She said that I’d gotten the wrong permit, that I actually needed an overnight permit. I told her that I was going to climb Whitney and be down to Wallace Creek on the PCT by the end of the day, so I’d only be climbing Whitney as a day hike. She said it didn’t matter. If I was exiting from a different point than the Whitney Portal Trailhead, then I needed an overnight permit.

We cancelled my day permit even though there were no overnight permits available for tomorrow. She said there would likely be cancellations and that I could come back at 11a for the lottery. If that didn’t work out, I could get a permit for tonight and just hike beyond the trailhead and set up camp, then summit tomorrow and continue with my trip. Either way, I wasn’t really concerned. More annoyed at my mistake than anything else. And when 11a rolled around, there was no need. Four of us were waiting and there were four permits available, so we were all good. I got mine and headed up to Lone Pine to pass the heat of the day with lunch and some chores before walking the road up to the trailhead.

First, I headed over to the Whitney Portal Hostel to pick up and repack my resupply. I also went into a local outfitter and picked up a couple extra layers for the High Sierra Trail. The ranger at the visitor center was quite adamant that it’s going to snow in the Sierra tomorrow and possibly the next couple days. The forecast says 20%, but she assured me that that’s basically a certainty. I have my doubts, but she’s the expert, so I’ll plan accordingly.

Once I’d gotten lunch, called mom, and finished my errands, it was already nearly 4p. I picked up a Subway sandwich, stashed it in my pack and started up the Whitney Portal Road. Shin splint was acting up again, so I bought some gel insoles and doubled those up with my SOLEs. Worked like a charm for most of the road walk, but a few miles before the trailhead – pretty much right as the road steepened – that persistent shin splint came back in full force. Nothing I couldn’t handle long enough to reach Whitney and get back down. It’s a tricky game, though. Pushing through shin splints can lead to stress fractures. Like Russian roulette every other step. But since it had been coming and going, rather than full-on all the time, my thought was that it couldn’t be that serious. Figured I’d just keep playing it by ear. I’m still not sure whether I’ll continue down the HST. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow.

During the hike up toward the Whitney Portal, four different cars stopped to offer me a ride. Funny how that happens when I don’t want one. I respectfully declined each time, and everyone looked confused. Eventually, a big truck pulls over and an imposing dude gets out to offer me a ride. I declined again, and he asked my name. Immediately, I knew who it was and I couldn’t believe I’d run into him. “ADAM!” I burst into a dead sprint toward him, and he ran across the street to meet me.

Adam is a dear friend who I met doing trailwork on the PCT back in 2011. I knew he was in the area, but we hadn’t connected. I had resigned to the fact that I’d miss him on this trip, but there he was standing in front of me! We chatted for a little bit. He was there capturing some photos en route to a wedding. (He’s a professional photographer.) He was going a different way than me, otherwise I would’ve liked to have camped with him. Next time, my friend!

As it got darker, fewer and fewer cars were on the road. Then another stopped. They were heading down as I was heading up. They’d already passed me and turned around to drive back up. I was thinking: Wow, that’s so nice…but really, I don’t want a ride. They pulled up and asked if I was on the L2H. Heck yeah, I am! It was Snorkel, Drop ‘n Roll, and Naomi. Pretty rad chicks; they’d just finished earlier today. We chatted for a bit before they headed back to LA and I headed up the road. What a cool little community we get to be a part of.

Ended up scoring some sweet digs when I finally got up to the Whitney Campground. I was going to stealth camp, which wouldn’t have been very difficult. Instead, I’ve stumbled across an unlocked storage shed. I slipped in out of the wind and unrolled my sleeping bag. Cush crash pad. Seems like it should be too good to be true, but it’s almost 10p, so I can’t imagine anyone coming by tonight, and I’m planning on another early start tomorrow, so I should be long gone before anyone shows up. What a hiker trash move. Couldn’t have planned it any better!

Miles Hiked: 17

Whitney Portal to PCT/JMT/HST Split

Whitney Portal to PCT/JMT/HST Split

10 October 2016

My alarm wailed at 4a this morning. It took me a second to get my bearings, then I remembered: today, today, today! I willed myself upright, then I balked. I was so comfortable and happy that I really didn’t wanna get up. I just wanted to sleep in. But with the ranger’s assurance that we’d get some weather today around 11a, I wanted to be done by then, so I forced myself out of my warm bag and into my crusty trail runners. I was hiking by 430a and at the trailhead a little before 5a.

The Whitney Trail is gorgeous, and it’s a super highway. Hiking up as the sun was rising behind me was awesome. The light hues on the towering peaks were just beautiful. I hardly noticed my shin splint today, much to my surprise. I was making great time, passing loads of hikers on the ascent. It was fun to be back on maintained trail again, total cruiser miles. Topped out at 1046a this morning.

I’m an engineer by education, so I’m always curious about numbers. I like numbers. And I’m competitive. I don’t pay attention to how well anyone else does it; I just wanna know how well I can do it. I’m competing against myself. What is my best, exactly? Start to finish, the whole route took me 114 hours 24 minutes. And I got to do the whole thing my way, beholdin’ to none. Feeling satisfied.

Had the summit all to myself for about an hour. Didn’t expect that at all. Took loads of photos and just soaked up the view and the solitude. Once some other hikers started arriving, I got ready to head down the JMT. Turns out Verizon gets 3G atop Mt. Whitney, so I lingered a bit and gave my mom a call. No answer. I can’t believe Whitney gets cell service. Something about that just doesn’t feel right to me. Sorta like the light shows over Niagara Falls. A little outta place for somewhere so cool. Ah well, something for everyone.

As I was leaving, Slaughterhouse spotted me by the trail register. “Hey, are you Sochi?” I love that. Hearing my name, the name that I hear so infrequently in the real world, is such a cool reminder that I’m a part of a really cool community. Plus it brings up a whole flood of memories from the PCT, of the beautiful places I saw and the wonderful people with whom I shared the experience. And then there’s the ego piece. So often we’re unseen in our lives. Hearing someone I don’t know say “Hey, are you that guy I heard about?” is pretty cool. Almost like being famous. Turns out Slaughterhouse was hiking with Buck-30 who I’d met while waiting to get my permit back in Lone Pine. Small community.

Hiking down the JMT toward the HST, I was reflecting on the L2H. In any pursuit, our experience is different than that of others, perhaps especially so on a cross country trek between two so extreme points. Though there were over a dozen of us who set out on the route this year, none of us experienced it the same way. And of the couple dozen who have come before us, well ours seems to have been far different than what I’ve read of theirs. Water can be difficult. Heat, bugs, logistics, anything. Whatever challenges you face on the L2H, the important thing is to pack your sense of humor! This stuff is supposed to be fun!

For me, this nagging shin splint has been my main concern. The weather has been really mild at both ends of the spectrum. Highs in the valleys around the mid-90’s; lows in the high country around the high-30’s. Really quite pleasant, considering. And there has been plenty of water along the route. I definitely could’ve gotten away with just one cache this year, but I was happy to have the insurance. Actually, I constantly caught myself carrying too much. I remember more than once walking along and just dumping out extra liters of water. Like, “Wait, why am I carrying all of this??” It felt like a sin to dump out something so precious as water on the L2H, but it felt like an even bigger taboo to arrive at my next cache with two or three liters of water in my pack. That would’ve been just silly.

For me this year, it was a totally manageable, even fun experience. It was challenging but not nearly the sufferfest I was prepared to endure. I love this stuff. Being sleep-deprived and uncomfortable, troubleshooting challenges on the fly, exploring away from the beaten path, and pushing my own limits. Out here, I’m happy. There’s nothing better. I’m feeling great, and that’s why I chose to keep going. SEKI, here I come!

The trail down from the Whitney summit was familiar, though it looks quite different in the fall. Not so lush and green. It’s satisfying to be back here in the High Sierra. Wow, this place holds so many memories for me.

Only saw a handful of folks hiking the JMT en route to Wallace Creek where I’m camped tonight. The high country is comparatively quiet this time of year. Understandably so, it’s getting chilly up here. Of course, it never snowed despite the ranger’s assurance that it would. “Twenty percent is basically an all-out certainty up there,” she told me when I got my Whitney permit yesterday. Haha, this time I’m happy the ranger was mistaken.

Got into camp at 6p tonight. It was nice to have some light left. I did some chores and set up a shelter for the first time this trip. Gah, I love cowboy camping. Figured it was better to play it safe tonight. Twenty percent chance of precip again tonight…you know, that’s basically a certainty and all. I think I’ll start a little later tomorrow, give the sun a chance to come up. Not really on a timeline anymore. I’ll just dial back a little bit the next couple days and enjoy this incredible place. Also- that shin splint felt great all day long, so I’m hopeful that being back on a trail will help.

Seeing the junction here for the HST brings up a very vivid memory that I have of the moment I passed this same junction during my PCT thru-hike in 2014. I’d heard about the HST in Kennedy Meadows and had desperately wanted to hike it as a side trip, but I didn’t have the resources I needed to effectively plan for it, so I forced myself to skip the turn off. I remember thinking to myself, “I’ll be back for you.” And now here I am. Tomorrow I’ll pack up, split off of the JMT/PCT, and head down the lesser-known, wicked-sick High Sierra Trail. Kern Hot Springs, here I come! Stoked.

It’s not even 8p, and I’m turning my headlamp off right meow. Six o’clock wake up call tomorrow morning. Looking forward to 10 glorious hours of sleep tonight, and so grateful for the lovely walk about the mountains today. Sweet bliss.

Miles Hiked: 23

PCT/JMT/HST Split to Big Arroyo Creek

PCT/JMT/HST Split to Big Arroyo Creek

11 October 2016

Didn’t sleep the best last night. Started out pretty well, then I woke up sometime in the middle of the night and was too warm, so I kicked off my socks and threw out my hand warmers. Tossed and turned the rest of the night. Couldn’t get comfortable. Part of me was relieved when my alarm buzzed at 6a. I still hit snooze until 645a. Haha, that’s what I do!

Normally I’m a fan of the adage “Be bold, start cold.” Not today, though. It was a brisk morning, and I knew the sun wouldn’t crest the ridge for quite some time, so I set out in my puffy. In the back of my mind, I figured I’d be stopping soon to de-layer, but I wore it comfortably for the first few hours as I descended into the Kern River Valley.

During a stop for one of my so-called “Beauty Breaks,” which is just fancy-talk for taking pictures, I heard something kick a big rock down in the narrow gorge where I was hiking. I love when that kind of stuff happens. Hiking alone, I see lots of wildlife, but these moments are reminders of all the wildlife I don’t see. I wonder what was up there.

I loved hiking along the Kern River. Trees and thick vegetation were a nice change. I saw two hikers heading in the direction opposite me who said I was the only person they’d seen during the four days they’d been out. Day two on the HST; I’d already seen four other people by this time on the L2H route. Funny how there was more traffic on a lesser-known, undeveloped route than on this well-known, well-maintained trail. Of course, the Sierra in October are bound to be less popular. So naturally, I had the Kern Hot Springs all to myself. Naked time! To be honest, they’re not terribly impressive, but they’re remote and hot, so I was satisfied. I was there right in the heat of the day, so I soaked my body for about 20 minutes, then I got out, filtered water from the river, ate lunch, and continued on. I would’ve enjoyed spending the night there and soaking during the brisk morning hours tomorrow, but I didn’t feel compelled to just hang out there the rest of the day when it was barely 1p.

Once I gained the Chagoopa Plateau, I opted for the Moraine Lake alternate route, which only added about a quarter mile. First I cruised through Sky Parlor Meadow with gorgeous views of the surrounding high country, then I climbed up to Moraine Lake. Beautiful. Again, a spot where I would’ve loved to have camped. But it wasn’t time yet. I was shooting for the Big Arroyo to give myself morning light on the Great Western Divide tomorrow morning. Just a quick four or five miles further. As I rejoined the standard route above Moraine Lake, I saw a pack of three coyotes watching me from across an open meadow. When I stopped in kind, they turned and trotted off into the trees. Usually I prefer my wide angle lenses, but those wildlife shots are often better-captured with a telephoto. As you can imagine, these coyotes look like pixels in the photos I took. Ah well, life is imperfect. And it was still so cool!

I arrived at the Big Arroyo shortly after the last bit of twilight faded to black. Not a soul to be seen. I found a historic cabin and thought I’d scored again, but it was locked and shuttered. No way in but to break in, which really isn’t my style. Instead I’ve found a nice flat spot nearby to make my home for the night. I may well finish tomorrow, which is exciting and sad. I’m stoked for Kaweah Gap and stoked to put this one in the books. And I don’t wanna leave. This is my first thru-hike for a while; it’s been wonderful to be back out here. Wonderful to be Sochi again.

Miles Hiked: 25.5

Big Arroyo Creek to The General Sherman Tree

Big Arroyo Creek to The General Sherman Tree

12 October 2016

I got to listen to the coyotes howling this morning as I packed up. I can only assume it was the same pack I saw last night. Had intended to get going a little early, but I didn’t even get out of my bag until almost 8a. I was just so cozy and warm.

No matter, I was still about 20 minutes early for the light on Kaweah, so I ended up hanging out below the pass waiting on the sun anyways. Great captures today…incredible pass. Kaweah Gap is without doubt one of the most stunningly beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I was moving at a snail’s pace all morning, because I kept stopping to take photos. The west side was even more beautiful. Hamilton Lake is a prime campsite. I imagine it’s packed throughout the summer months, but I saw just one person from Big Arroyo to Eagle View, which is a mere mile from the parking area. I had this incredible place almost to myself. Actually, I had almost the entire 62 miles from Whitney to the Sherman Tree all to myself. Fall: the High Sierra’s best-kept secret.

The pit toilet at Hamilton Lake is, like most pit toilets, a glorified cathole. That said, it’s a hole in the ground that’s fit for the Gods. And it came just in time. I was thinking to myself during the descent, “Dang, I need to dig a cathole soon. Wait, maybe there will be one down at Hamilton.” Eureka! And boy, what a view. Again, undoubtedly one of the best I’ve ever enjoyed while taking care of business.

A thick smokey haze engulfed the valley beyond Hamilton Lake, and it persisted almost all the way to Crescent Meadow. I wonder if they were doing a controlled burn. There were no signs, but then again there was nothing indicating a wildfire either. It eventually cleared, but not until I’d reached the parking lot. I enjoyed a snack and snapped some photos at the HST sign before finishing the last 2.5 miles through a maze of well-traveled trails to reach the General Sherman Tree, and the official end of this trip. On the way, just a quarter mile from the parking lot, a coyote hopped out onto the trail in front of me. She ran along ahead of me for a few hundred feet before leisurely dipping off into the trees. I don’t think she ever realized I was behind her. She was so beautiful, and certainly about the last thing I expected to see so near cars and people, especially with so much wilderness around her. It happened really quickly; I never even reached for my camera.

After the first couple trail junctions, there were no more signs that indicated the way to Sherman. Instead, I followed signs for the Congress Trail. I think it’s a loop. When I reached it, I turned right which got me to the General Sherman Tree. I dunno if left would’ve been faster. I reached the Sherman Tree at about a quarter to 7p. Just enough time for photos. They’re dark, but they’ll do!

It was funny that I felt physically better at the end than I had at the start. That persistent shin splint was all but gone. I’d been comfortably cruisin’ pretty much since Whitney. I felt like a thru-hiker again. Pretty satisfying. I was finally done, but not really. I still had to get back to the car, which I’d parked at the Giant Forest Museum. Two miles on the road were all that separated me from creature comforts like climate control. I made quick work of the road walk and found my car exactly as I’d left it, then I raced down the mountain to get to Visalia in time to go to In ‘n Out Burger for dinner. I was high on stoke, speedily driving the winding road while banging on the steering wheel, laughing out loud, and yelling repeatedly: “HOLY SHIT, THAT WAS AWESOME!!”

I freakin’ love working out all of the troublesome logistics on the front end. There is nothing – and I mean nothing – like hiking back to the car and actually being totally done. There is nothing to plan or work out, nothing to rob me of that precious moment. It’s so satisfying.

Miles Hiked: 27